The Unfinished Synthesis?: Paleontology and Evolutionary Biology in the 20th Century

  • David SepkoskiEmail author
Open Access


In the received view of the history of the Modern Evolutionary Synthesis, paleontology was given a prominent role in evolutionary biology thanks to the significant influence of paleontologist George Gaylord Simpson on both the institutional and conceptual development of the Synthesis. Simpson's 1944 Tempo and Mode in Evolution is considered a classic of Synthesis-era biology, and Simpson often remarked on the influence of other major Synthesis figures–such as Ernst Mayr and Theodosius Dobzhansky–on his developing thought. Why, then, did paleontologists of the 1970s and 1980s–Stephen Jay Gould, Niles Eldredge, David M. Raup, Steven Stanley, and others–so frequently complain that paleontology remained marginalized within evolutionary biology? This essay considers three linked questions: first, were paleontologists genuinely welcomed into the Synthetic project during its initial stages? Second, was the initial promise of the role for paleontology realized during the decades between 1950 and 1980, when the Synthesis supposedly “hardened” to an “orthodoxy”? And third, did the period of organized dissent and opposition to this orthodoxy by paleontologists during the 1970s and 1980s bring about a long-delayed completion to the Modern Synthesis, or rather does it highlight the wider failure of any such unified Darwinian evolutionary consensus?


Paleontology Modern evolutionary synthesis George Gaylord Simpson Stephen Jay Gould Punctuated equilibrium 



Open access funding provided by Max Planck Society.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of HistoryUniversity of IllinoisUrbanaUSA
  2. 2.Max Planck Institute for the History of ScienceBoltzmanstraße 22BerlinGermany

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